The multiplex, the megaplex. Armchair cup holders, stadium seating and reclining seats. Internet ticketing, social media marketing and the industry’s first rewards program. Much of what we expect out of and (fess up) really love about our movie-going experience was born at AMC Theatres.
But how about beacon technology, dynamic search and social voting? Those are just three innovations that could be coming to a theatre near you—thanks to AMC Theatres’ Innovation Lab and the Kansas City Startup Village.
Why Corporate Engagement Is Important
Headquartered in Leawood, Kan., AMC has led innovative movie going for the past 95 years. So how does a nearly century-old, $2.7 billion corporation with 20,000ish employees, 346 locations nationwide and 4,500 screens keep it fresh? By keeping its focus on improving the guest experience.
In AMC’s consumer-driven, customer-focused environment, innovation is key to growth, says Christina Sternberg, AMC’s senior vice president of corporate strategy and communications. “You have to continue to innovative to be relevant and compete for your guest’s attention and wallet.”
That commitment to growth is what led AMC Theatres to the Kansas City Startup Village. There, Sternberg; Mike Czinge, AMC’s chief information officer; and three AMC employees developed and tested AMC’s corporate engagement strategy, more succinctly and amiably known as the AMC Innovation Lab.
Launched in 2014, the AMC Innovation Lab is arguably an innovation in corporate engagement and entrepreneurship in and of itself. Yet another tactic in AMC’s commitment to improving guest experience and recharging its innovation engines, the Innovation Lab helps AMC:
- stimulate innovative thinking to enhance AMC’s “guest experience leader” strategy
- establish mutually beneficial business-to-business connections with a startup network engaged in leading-edge technologies and business concepts
- provide unique employee development opportunity
- enhance corporate citizenship
With keyword emphasis on “mutually beneficial,” Sternberg is quick to point out that the Innovation Lab isn’t just about being a better corporate citizen (although that’s a benefit). For AMC to engage with startups, its plan had to be strategic.
“Most companies that aren’t leaning into the opportunity to engage with the KCSourceLink Network don’t see the great opportunity for return on invested time and energy,” says Sternberg. “It’s about more than corporate citizenship. It’s about finding new opportunities for growth.”
How AMC Built Its Innovation Lab
“‘Innovation’ feels like this thing that’s going to spill off the table,” says Sternberg. “There’s an assumption that it’s big spend with little reward. But it doesn’t have to be that like that. It can be organized.”
Sternberg and Czinge set a criteria for their associates, set up a timeline for engagement with the Kansas City Startup Village and outlined the key deliverables. They were looking for business concepts, not business plans.
“We put a structure to it, but only enough that kept it bound but not controlled, paced but not timed,” says Sternberg.
Based on their criteria, Sternberg and Czinge selected Trevor Hart, Derrick Leggit and Carrie Trotter to be their Village ambassadors. They gave them 12 weeks to scout the Village’s 30 startups for ideas that could help AMC improve its guest-experience strategy.
“They could’ve come back with 0 or 12,” says Sternberg. “But that’s the essence of having a growth-driven company: hire the right people, tell them what you need and get out of the way.”
- In weeks 1 and 2, Hart, Leggit and Trotter met with every startup in the Village.
- By week 4, they had completed their startup assessment, determining what tech the startups had, what tech they could create and which of those opportunities could benefit AMC in the short- and long-term.
- Over the following several weeks, Hart, Leggit and Trotter collaborated with selected startups on business concepts.
- By week 12, they were ready to present the emerging tech trends and proposed business concepts to then CEO Gerry Lopez and his direct reports.
Hart, Leggit and Trotter pitched five technologies from current Village residents Lantern and Square-Offs and recent graduates D3 Automation, Leap.It and RFP365. AMC green-lit all of them for further exploration and two have already been developed and launched. RFP365 is part of AMC’s procurement processing and Lantern’s beacon technology is currently be testing in the Kansas City market.
“You can’t always draw a straight line between an idea and a growth opportunity,” says Sternberg. “Growth is organic, but it can also be fed, processed and organized. That’s where AMC and our Innovation Lab do a great job.”
Why Corporations Engage KC Entrepreneurs
When comes to innovative collaborations, AMC Theatres is at the top of more than one entrepreneurs’ rolodex. Sternberg gets calls from California to New York looking for opportunities to join forces. While she hasn’t closed the door to the coasts by any means, she still sees KC as ripe garden of tech talent.
“There’s a lot of great opportunities for startup collaborations here in Kansas City,” she says. “We’re not done with Kansas City. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what the KCSourceLink community has to offer. And that’s exciting for us.”
AMC Theatres is one of several KC corporations who’ve chosen to lean in to entrepreneurship not only to lend their support to young companies, but also to seed their idea pipeline, fuel their own growth and solve their own challenges.
In addition to dispatching mentors and sponsoring entrepreneurial events, Sprint launched the Sprint Accelerator, powered by Techstars. (See When Sprint Met Startups for the backstory.) Hallmark hosted technology and crowdfunding showcases and a proxy tradeshow that created videos for 20 companies to help improve their advertising and sales. VML connected KC startup Aware3 to their client Southwest Airlines. KC Chiefs hosted a “reverse pitch” to ask entrepreneurs to help solve their parking conundrum.
And numerous other corporations provide mentors and services through such KCSourceLink Resource Partners as the Digital Sandbox KC, SparkLabKC, Women’s Capital Connection and Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, among others.
How to Get Engaged
First, says Sternberg, don’t call it innovation.
“The more approachable and less scary word is ‘growth,’” she says. “Every single company needs a growth story. Every shareholder, employee and guest is attracted to growth. Demystify the idea of innovation and make it less scary.”
Second, make innovation—or growth—part of your culture.
“At AMC we have a culture of innovation. We publish it as one of our guiding principles and embody it in everything we do, including our physical environment.”
Proof and point: AMC associates are encouraged to collaborate in AMC’s plethora of working spaces: indoors, outdoors, over a conference table, a set of couches or even their indoor putting green. Yes, they have a putting green.
“We create an environment that helps recruit and retain the right talent and put them in a frame of mind that is collaborative and innovative,” she says.
Third, motivate employees to be innovative, recognizing, again, that innovation is not always immediately quantifiable.
“Companies have to be cautious about key performance measures and success factors,” she says. “If all your measures are quantitative and based on return on investment, you’ll end up talking a lot about growth and innovation, but you don’t end up incenting it and really making it a formal part of your culture.”
And fourth, when you’re ready to lean in to KC entrepreneurship, take a small bite out of the e-elephant.
“The toughest part is figuring out where to step in,” says Sternberg.
Whether it’s attending 1 Million Cups on Wednesdays at the Kauffman Foundation, mentoring entrepreneurs through an accelerator like Betablox or SparkLabKC, working with Digital Sandbox KC to support early-stage commercialization or jumping into the capital continuum with We Create Capital, it’s important to find the place where your business needs fit into the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“Everyone can use the entrepreneurial community in different ways,” she says. “Engage in what helps you resolve your business needs and engage in way that allows you to leverage your resources. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just ask.”